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Business bonanza of 10 years tax-free is finalized in Albany

ALBANY – Businesses that locate new jobs on vacant public or private college land will get treated to 10 years without any state or property taxes under a deal finalized Wednesday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders.

The tax-free bonanza will, if Cuomo’s predictions come true, lead to one of the greatest job-producing benefits for upstate New York in generations. Critics, though, dismiss it as an offshorelike tax-break program that has been tried and has failed before in various forms and will force existing businesses to finance the tax breaks for new companies, including competitors.

The deal, to be approved before lawmakers end their 2013 session this week, envisions pirating jobs away from other states with the lure of saving millions of dollars in annual state tax bills, depending on the size of a business.

“I believe it is the boldest economic-development program for upstate New York ever. Period. This is on a scale that has never been attempted before,” Cuomo said Wednesday.

The governor agreed to several changes to his original “Tax-Free NY” proposal unveiled just several weeks ago, including limiting his idea to zero-out or sharply reduce personal income taxes for new employees of firms that locate on campuses. His original plan offered the tax break to an unlimited number of workers; the new deal gives it up to 10,000 new employees statewide.

The plan originally was billed as an upstate economic initiative but now has been expanded to include more downstate areas as a bow to political interests in New York City and on Long Island. Under the plan, vacant land or buildings at public colleges and up to 3 million square feet of space at private campuses will be available to new business expansion in return for the state promising they will not have to pay state income, sales, franchise and other taxes, as well as property taxes.

One state university official in Albany said that a half-dozen firms already are reaching out to take advantage of the tax-free zones.

At the University at Buffalo, no such calls have come, officials said, but there is great hope the program will attract businesses while also providing a space for researchers to incubate their ideas into moneymaking ventures that end up providing internships for students and possible jobs to keep graduates in the area.

While colleges can buy land outside their core campus areas and let businesses lease from them and get the tax-free benefits, UB President Satish K. Tripathi said vacant land is available at the university’s North and South campuses that would be ideal for the program.

Tripathi said any businesses coming to UB would have to have a connection to campus programs. “Our core mission is education, research and service,”’ he said. But, he added, “we don’t live on an island. We live in the community, and part of the mission is the economic well-being of the community.”

In 11 recent appearances touting the program, Cuomo dubbed it “Tax-Free NY”; he said the new name, “Start-Up NY,” is less confusing.

But unions, including the AFL-CIO, said the program gives valuable tax breaks to new companies at the expense of existing companies, as well as municipalities that will have to provide police, firefighting and other services to these tax-free zones. They questioned the premise of a program that will have a three-person board – with appointees representing the governor and Senate and Assembly leaders – choosing who gets to join the tax-free program.

Ron Deutsch, executive director of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, a group heavily backed by labor, dismissed Cuomo’s contention that the program will not cost anything on the theory that the state wasn’t counting on these jobs, anyway. “It creates an uneven playing field. How am I, as an existing business, supposed to compete with a business coming into the zone?” he said.

Others have questioned whether the state university system is up to the task of meeting its core mission of educating students and playing the role of economic developer, and who at the colleges will be responsible for trying to attract firms.

But a Cuomo administration official said that some colleges have to undergo a “cultural change” to build on the educational core mission to connect students and professors with businesses that want to grow in a region. The official, speaking on background, said campuses wanting to participate must show an “alignment” between the company being lured and a field of study at the college.

The tax breaks are available only for “net new jobs” created, and firms can’t transfer from one part of the state to another and get the tax-free treatment. Employees of the firms getting the income tax breaks cannot have worked in the state for the previous five years. A whole series of industries are not eligible, from law firms to hospitality companies, and downstate campuses face further industry restrictions. Existing academic programs cannot be canceled, and current buildings, such as dorms or classrooms, cannot be razed to make land available for companies.

Besides the state colleges, universities and community colleges and five City University of New York colleges being eligible, 3 million square feet of private college space qualifies – all to be selected by the three-member panel. Land at an additional 20 “strategic state assets,” which include shuttered prisons or mental health hospitals, will be offered.

If off-campus land is targeted, there is supposed to be an emphasis on first developing manufacturing sites or brownfields instead of more valuable real estate that would be taken off the local tax rolls. The selection panel is to ensure that a mix of urban and rural state university campuses are part of the program.

Businesses also could locate in up to 200,000 square feet of land within a mile of a state campus and get the tax breaks. Workers on construction projects, such as building a new building for a business locating in one of the tax-free zones, will get prevailing wage rates, a union-backed effort; the Cuomo administration says that it is only applying existing state law regarding prevailing wages.

Brian Sampson, executive director of Unshackle Upstate, a business group, said the legislation also includes lowering the job-creation threshold requirements for another state program, called Excelsior, so existing New York firms can get better benefits to make up for some of the tax breaks being given to firms joining the tax-free program.

Also, there is anti-competition language so a software business can’t locate at UB, for instance, just down the road from an existing software firm.

Alluding to previous economic programs, Sampson said, “They’re trying to learn from past mistakes.”